In September I spent several days in a row flagrantly parking at expired meters in downtown Washington, in hopes of earning a pink badge of courage tucked under my windshield wiper. Each day was unsuccessful. Finally I dug in my purse for a months-old speeding ticket from Virginia and headed to H Street NE, hoping it would be good enough. I was hungry.
My destination was one of the two branches of Caribbean Citations, a small, very yellow carryout restaurant that sits next to a vacant storefront, a few blocks from the former location of a virtual-reality exhibit by Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu about refugees. The menu is the same as at the sister (and older) location in Anacostia: curry goat, king fish, jerk chicken, oxtail and other Jamaican staples. Google and Yelp reviews are mixed, although they average 3.5 stars out of five. What makes these eateries unique, however, is not what they do with the menu but with the check: Caribbean Citations helps people turn parking tickets, moving violations and other infractions into ... well, not profit, but a couple of bucks knocked off the price of a meal.
This gimmick catches people’s attention in a city that has planned its fiscal 2019 budget around extracting $152 million in parking, automated speeding and red-light camera fines and forfeitures from drivers — a conservative estimate based on the city’s $199 million haul for fiscal 2016.
The day I visit the H Street branch, people trickle in every 15 minutes or so. Owner Michael Sterling is manning the register and cheerfully explaining why the restaurant was closed the night before. “Our cook was in the emergency room. She cut her hand chopping cabbage,” he says, rearing his arm back to mime a ferocious slice. “They had to almost sew her thumb back on.” She got tonight off, too, but planned to be back the next day.
I needn’t have worried about whether my Virginia parking ticket would be acceptable. The management welcomes tickets from any state and, Sterling says, any country. He’s gotten one from England that a tourist just happened to have in her purse. The citations can also be for almost anything, not just vehicular. “It can be a jaywalking ticket; we don’t care. People come in with their tickets to go to court for criminal activities, urinating in public, whatever,” he says. He doesn’t rule out discounts for arrest warrants or murder charges, though so far they’ve only been as serious as a DUI. “I’m looking at the person who got the ticket,” he says. “They’re having a bad day. We put a little Band-Aid on it.”
When a customer hands in a citation, Sterling writes a note on it in green marker, so the ticket can’t be used again. In return, he presents a deep pink ticket to enter in the monthly raffle. If your ticket gets picked, they’ll pay the fine, up to $100. About a quarter of his customers bring in a ticket, Sterling says. My Virginia ticket shaved $1 off my $16 tab.
The 46-year-old tells me he got the idea after he had his own run-ins with parking enforcement upon moving to the area in 2011. He had come from Jamaica by way of Detroit. “I am a good driver. I had a spotless, clean record when I arrived here,” he says. Sterling’s biggest ticket came from a speed camera — $150 for driving 16 miles over the limit, he says.
He also knew how to cook, and now he had a concept. “I said, ‘Man, it’s a lot of people getting tickets here.’ It’s a big market of people, they’re pissed off they got the ticket. It’s my little niche.” He opened Caribbean Citations four years ago in a small, stand-alone building in a rapidly gentrifying part of Anacostia.
When I visit the Anacostia location, Qua McKoy, 24, who has worked there for three months, tells me someone comes in with a ticket at least once a week. “People will come in, not know the concept, and go back to their car to see what they’ve got,” she says, which is a worthwhile exercise given that AAA estimates the District so far this decade has issued 14.2 million parking tickets.
The parking lot behind the building has a big smoker and several “No Parking” signs that many of Sterling’s customers seem to ignore. But lest you think Sterling is fostering anti-authoritarianism, each weekday he offers discounts to various public employees, including law enforcement.
Here the law and the scofflaw are treated the same. Sterling’s sympathies, though, clearly lean in one direction. “In some states, these speed cameras are illegal,” he says. “There’s nothing we can do about it — it’s a bigger issue that I think should be addressed. I don’t think it’s fair.” Parking signs can be confusing. A restaurant employee had a parking pass for her residence in Silver Spring but got towed because she left her car one spot over from the zone she could park in. She can enter the raffle if she wants, Sterling says, but employees eat free anyhow.
One customer came in on the verge of being arrested for unpaid tickets worth about $3,000, Sterling tells me. The man wanted to know what he could get for all those tickets. He got the same discount and raffle chance as everyone else.
The ticket discount undoubtedly serves to get people in the door, which can be a struggle as the neighborhoods around Sterling’s locations change quickly. But there is also a Robin Hood quality to the concept — linked to a sense of righteous indignation about what the city does with the money it makes on citations. “We have all these developers,” says Sterling. “The city is giving millions of dollars to these projects, but the small mom-and-pop shops, it’s a struggle to survive.”
Rachel Manteuffel is a Washington Post editorial aide.